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How big of a pay day should the Steelers give T.J.?

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The youngest of the Watt brothers is poised to set records in the coming years, both on the field and in terms of salary

Pittsburgh Steelers v New York Jets Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

There’s little doubt or question that T.J. Watt must be the priority resigning for the Steelers during the next two seasons. Although the bigger question remains, just how much should the Steelers pay to keep their defensive superstar, arguably Defensive Player of the Year in 2019, on the roster for years to come?

Before we tackle questions such as: How much cap space do the Steelers have available? How much of the cap is being allocated to the Linebacker position? How much of the cap is being allocated to the defense? It’s worth taking a closer look at what the NFL’s defensive leaders or linebackers in areas like sacks are earning, what their perceived value is, and where T.J. fits into the mix.

In looking at the top 5 pass rushers in 2019 by total sack number, T.J. was tied for 4th with Danielle Hunter of the Minnesota Vikings (14.5 sacks), behind Cameron Jordan (15.5 sacks), Chandler Jones (19 sacks) and Shaquil Barrett (19.5 sacks), according to Pro Football Reference.

To simplify the equation, let’s take Hunter and Jordan who play Defensive End out of consideration, instead focusing on Watt, Barrett and Jones, who were listed as Linebackers in 2019.

T.J. trailed Barrett and Jones by over 5 sacks in 2019, and fell middle of the pack with 14 tackles for loss, with Barrett recording 19 TFLs (second in the NFL behind Aaron Donald) and Jones recording 11 TFLs. However, T.J. led in ‘Quarterback Knockdowns’ with 19 ahead of Barrett (16) and Jones (5). So what? You might say, this shows T.J. missed sack opportunities by being late to the quarterback and ultimately Barrett and Jones recorded sacks instead of allowing a pass attempt.

Here’s where the stats start getting interesting though. Last season, Barrett recorded 37 quarterback hits, T.J. 36 hits and Jones trailed with only 26 hits, yet when it came to quarterback pressures, T.J. led Barrett (51), Jones (40) and the entire NFL with his 59 pressures in 2019. This demonstrates just how elite a player T.J. is becoming after just 3 seasons.

Let’s delve a little deeper. In 2019, guess which of our trio had the least amount of 4-man blitz plays (times brought on a blitz) called to be able to excessively pressure and get to the quarterback? That’s right, it’s No. 90 from the Pittsburgh Steelers, T.J. Watt. In fact, T.J. was part of only 80 four-man rush plays called last season (with Bud Dupree part of 98 four man blitzes), compared to 174 four man blitzes featuring Barrett and Jones participating in 143.

Hopefully, you’re still with me. In short, it’s more from less for T.J. and in less time. With his defensive success less reliant on those around him, given the Steelers forecast cap challenges in the coming seasons is a blessing.

Diving even further into this defensive data, in 2019 guess who led when it came to quarterback hurries? It’s No. 90 again, with T.J. forcing the quarterback to get rid of the football 23 times, compared to Jones’ 15 hurries and Barrett’s 14 hurries. Forced fumbles were yet another area that T.J. was again the cream of the crop for both our trio and the NFL, tying Jones with a league leading eight forced fumbles, with Barrett not far behind with six. T.J. also led in fumble recoveries with four compared to Jones’ three and Barrett’s none.

In pass defense, T.J. led Barrett and Jones in 2019 across several key statistical categories. Firstly, T.J. allowed a miserly 2.6 yards per time targeted by the quarterback, compared to Barrett’s 6 yards and Jones’s 8.7 yards. When it came to pass completions allowed on times targeted by quarterback, T.J. allowed a completion rate of only 40%, compared to Barrett’s 81.8% and Jones’s 90% completion rate, while leading both Barrett (2) and Jones (5) with 8 pass deflections.

What do these various numbers and statistical categories mean for value, and ultimately a potential number on a new contract for T.J.? Value is a highly subjective attribute and dependent on our own individual preferences or evaluation of what’s important, which BTSC’s Dave Schofield and Lance Williams discussed in Wednesday’s podcast titled “Who is the Steelers all-time best draft pick?”

Beyond production statistics, I examined two individual metrics. First, Pro Football Reference’s own numerical value or ‘Approximate Value’ which is a number assigned to every player since 1960. Next, I looked at Over The Cap’s 2019 OTC Valuation which assigns a dollar figure to each player based on output. Here’s how the trio stacked up:

  • T.J. Watt - AV of 14 and an OTC Valuation of $21,303,000
  • Shaquil Barrett - AV of 13 and an OTC Valuation of $17,787,000
  • Chandler Jones - AV of 12 and an OTC Valuation of $20,450,000

As these numbers show, T.J. again leads his fellow top pass-rushing linebackers in approximate value and in OTC’s dollar valuation. Yet when it comes to an actual contract number, Barrett will earn $15,828,000 in 2020 and Chandler Jones will earn $21,333,333.

So, how big a pay day should the Steelers give T.J. when the time comes? I’d like to hear your thoughts in the comments below.